Two women who have been pals since training together as nurses are celebrating five decades of friendship as the NHS turns 70.
Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu and Sue Rees, who both turned 71 recently, qualified in 1968.
Before their birthdays and of the health service’s anniversary on Thursday, Dame Elizabeth posted a photo of the pair standing proudly side by side after completing their training, and one of the pals 50 years on.
The images have gone viral as tens of thousands of people “like” their heartwarming story.
Dame Elizabeth tweeted: “Sue and I qualified together as nurses 50 years ago at Paddington General Hospital and we’re still best friends.
“I’m just one day older than her and we’ll soon be celebrating our 71st birthdays! #NHS70.”
She adds of Sue: “We have the same sense of humour. We are really good friends, she’s wonderful. We’ve been able to support each other and we know each other’s children, even though we live in different parts of the country. It’s fantastic.”
The pair met for the first time in 1965 when they were 18 and bonded over crosswords as they began training at the former Paddington General Hospital in North West London, which is no longer standing.
Dame Elizabeth says: “We hit it off, we’ve got the same zany sense of humour and we love the NHS. I was very shy. We had to live in the nurses’ quarters,, but it helped someone like me with its sense of camaraderie.
“It was easy to make friends as there were no more than 12 of us that studied together. Everything was provided for us. We were part of the workforce; there were no fees to train and we had a small wage.”
Sue says of her friend: “We definitely clicked in terms of our sense of humour, intellect and curiosity. And we’re both socialists.”
Dame Elizabeth, of Ealing, West London, worked as a staff nurse for six months after qualifying. She went on to become a specialist sickle cell nurse and helped set up the country’s first Sickle Cell & Thalassaemia Centre.
The mum of one eventually became a professor of nursing at the University of West London and in 2001 received a CBE for services to nursing. On her retirement in 2007, Elizabeth was made Emeritus Professor and in 2010 was inducted into the Nursing Times Nursing Hall of Fame.
Last year, she was invested by the Queen. Dame Elizabeth says she is “very proud” to have had a career in the health service and still supports it.
She is a patron of the Sickle Cell Society and set a target of raising £710 for the charity by her 71st birthday, on Monday. She surpassed her goal by £200.
Dame Elizabeth also curated the NHS’s Twitter account for the day.
Sue says the photos brought back fond memories. “The first [from 1965], feels like it’s from another era. It’s as if we’re starting on a journey together.”
After having the first of her two children in 1985 Sue, of Brighton, returned to the NHS in a managerial position. Though she believes things have gone downhill since she and Elizabeth graduated, with nurses under such pressure.
She says: “It has changed drastically. Nurses are having to pay for their education now and the morale is very low in the health service. There are a lot of very clever nurses around and they’re undervalued, they’re not getting enough money.”
Sue, who gained a degree in psychology, goes on: “The landscape’s changed. When we worked together it was very much doctors were male and nurses were female.
“Now, it’s very good news. There are far more women training to be doctors and lots more men employed as nurses. When we first went into nursing, there was a sense that we were doing a really good job. We loved doing it.”
Dame Elizabeth says a sense of humour is crucial to coping as a nurse. “It’s a fun profession and humour helps you cope with the sadness and the downsides, but it is a fun, fun, fun career.”
Even actress daughter Azuka Oforka, 36, has had a taste of life in the health service, as nurse Louise Tyler in BBC drama Casualty. Dame Elizabeth says she thought, “wouldn’t it be nice” to share her pictures of her and Sue. Twitter users agreed.
One posted: “This is the most heartwarming tweet I have ever read. 50 years of being best friends, that is amazing.”
Another wrote: “Congratulations to you both and a massive thank you for your service to the NHS. Genuinely, what would we have done without you?”
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